Escape from California’s tangled, traffic-jammed freeways for a breezy cruise in the slow lane. Once you get rolling, you'll never want to leave those ocean views behind.
If you drive the state's entire coastline, you'll get the best of both worlds – sunny SoCal beach life and foggy NorCal forests – with chances to stop and explore cities too. If you only have time to drive part of this coastal route, start with Orange County's beaches on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in SoCal; Hwy 1 from hippie Big Sur all the way north to Mendocino, crossing San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge; or the verdant northern 'Redwood Coast' between Eureka and Crescent City.
Officially, only the short, sun-loving stretch of Hwy 1 through Orange and Los Angeles Counties can legally call itself Pacific Coast Highway. But never mind those technicalities, because equally bewitching ribbons of Hwy 1 and Hwy 101 await all along this route.
This is an excerpt from USA's Best Trips from Lonely Planet.
1. San Diego
At the bottom of the state map, the pretty peninsular beach town of Coronado connected to the San Diego mainland via the white-sand beaches of the Silver Strand. If you’ve seen Marilyn Monroe cavort in Some Like It Hot, you’ll recognize the dapper Hotel del Coronado, which has hosted US presidents, celebrities and royalty, including the former Prince of Wales who gave up his throne to marry a Coronado divorcée. Wander the turreted palace’s labyrinthine corridors, then quaff tropical cocktails at ocean-view Babcock & Story Bar.
Hold tight driving over the 2.1-mile-long San Diego–Coronado Bridge. Detour inland to Balboa Park. Head west, then south to Point Loma’s Cabrillo National Monument for captivating bay panoramas from the 19th-century lighthouse and monument to the West Coast’s first Spanish explorers. Roll north of Mission Beach and the old-fashioned amusement park at Pacific Beach, and suddenly you’re in hoity-toity La Jolla, beyond which lie North County’s beach towns.
2. San Clemente
Here in off-the-beaten-path spots like beautiful San Clemente, sloping steeply toward the sea, the Orange County coast feels like a trip back to the beach culture of yesteryear. Home to living surfing legends, top-notch surfboard companies, this may be the last place in the OC where you can authentically live the surf lifestyle. Ride your own board or swim at the city’s main beach beside San Clemente Pier. A fast detour inland, the community’s Surfing Heritage & Culture Center exhibits surfboards ridden by the greats, from Duke Kahanamoku to Kelly Slater. Head back toward the pier for the California sunset of your dreams.
3. Long Beach
In Long Beach, the biggest stars are the Queen Mary, a grand (and allegedly haunted) British ocean liner permanently moored here, and the giant Aquarium of the Pacific, a high-tech romp through an underwater world in which sharks dart and jellyfish float. Often overlooked, the Museum of Latin American Art shows off influential, contemporary Latinx creators from south of the border and right here in California. A mile away, vintage shoppers will be in their element on Retro Row, several blocks of mid-century fashion and furnishings.
Leaving traffic-jammed LA behind, Hwy 1 breezes northwest of Santa Monica to Malibu. You’ll feel like a movie star walking around on the public beaches, fronting gated compounds owned by Hollywood celebs. One mansion you can actually explore inside – for free – is the Getty Villa, a hilltop showcase of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities and manicured gardens. Next to Malibu Lagoon State Beach, west of the surfers by Malibu Pier, Adamson House is a Spanish-Moorish villa lavishly decorated with locally made hand-painted tiles. Motoring further west along the coast, where the Santa Monica Mountains plunge into the sea, take time out for a frolic on Malibu’s mega-popular beaches like sandy Point Dume, Zuma or Leo Carrillo.
5. Santa Barbara
Seaside Santa Barbara has almost perfect weather and a string of idyllic beaches, where surfers, kite flyers and dog walkers mingle. Admire the city’s iconic Spanish Colonial Revival–style architecture along State St downtown or from the county courthouse, its tower rising above the red-tiled rooftops. Gaze south toward the busy harborfront and Stearns Wharf or north to the historic Spanish Mission Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara’s balmy climate is also perfect for growing grapes. A 45-minute drive northwest along Hwy 154, visit Santa Barbara's wine country, made famous by the 2004 movie Sideways. Hit wine-tasting rooms in Los Olivos, then take Foxen Canyon Rd north past more wineries to rejoin Hwy 101.
6. Pismo Beach
A classic California beach town, Pismo Beach has a long, lazy stretch of sand for swimming, surfing and strolling out onto the pier at sunset. After digging into bowls of clam chowder and baskets of fried seafood at surf-casual cafes, check out the retro family fun at the bowling alley, billiards halls and bars uphill from the beach, or dash 10 miles up Hwy 101 to San Luis Obispo's vintage Sunset Drive-In, where you can put your feet up on the dash and munch on bottomless bags of popcorn while watching Hollywood blockbuster double-features.
7. Hearst Castle
Hilltop Hearst Castle is California’s most famous monument to wealth and ambition. William Randolph Hearst, the early-20th-century newspaper magnate, entertained Hollywood stars and royalty at this fantasy estate furnished with European antiques, accented by shimmering pools and surrounded by flowering gardens. Try to make tour reservations in advance, especially for living-history evening programs during the Christmas holiday season and in spring.
About 4.5 miles further north along Hwy 1, park at the signposted vista point and amble the boardwalk to view the enormous elephant seal colony that breeds, molts, sleeps, plays and fights on the beach. Seals haul out year-round, but the winter birthing and mating season peaks on Valentine’s Day. Nearby, Piedras Blancas Light Station is an outstandingly scenic spot.
As Big Sur loosens its condor’s talons on the coastal highway, Hwy 1 rolls gently downhill toward Monterey Bay. The fishing community of Monterey is the heart of Nobel Prize–winning writer John Steinbeck's country, and although Cannery Row today is touristy claptrap, it’s worth strolling down to step inside the mesmerizing Monterey Bay Aquarium, inhabiting a converted sardine cannery on the shores of a national marine sanctuary. All kinds of aquatic denizens swim in giant tanks here, from sea stars to pot-bellied seahorses and comical sea otters.
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9. Santa Cruz
Here, the flower power of the 1960s lives on, and bumper stickers on surfboard-laden woodies shout ‘Keep Santa Cruz weird.’ Next to the ocean, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has a glorious old-school Americana vibe and a 1911 Looff carousel. Its fun-for-all atmosphere is punctuated by squeals from nervous nellies on the stomach-turning Giant Dipper, a 1920s wooden roller coaster that’s a national historic landmark, as seen in the vampire cult-classic movie The Lost Boys.
Visit Santa Cruz's Museum of Art & History for regular special exhibitions and excellent permanent displays on the city's history and culture. Interesting one-off exhibitions have included the history of both skateboarding and tattooing in the city, Adjacent, there's good eating and drinking at Abbott Square Market.
10. San Francisco
Gridlock may shock your system after hundreds of lazy miles of wide-open, rolling coast. But don’t despair. Hwy 1 runs straight through the city’s biggest, most breathable greenspace: Golden Gate Park. You could easily spend all day in the conservatory of flowers, arboretum and botanical gardens, or perusing the California Academy of Sciences and the fine arts de Young Museum. Then follow Hwy 1 north over the Golden Gate Bridge. Guarding the entry to San Francisco Bay, this iconic bridge is named after the straits it spans, not for its "International Orange" paint job. Park in the lots on the bridge’s south or north side, then traipse out onto the pedestrian walkway for a photo.
11. Around Point Arena
The fishing fleets of Bodega Bay and the seal colony at Jenner’s harbor are the last things you’ll see before PCH dives into California’s great rural northlands. Hwy 1 twists and turns past the Sonoma Coast’s state parks packed with hiking trails, sand dunes and beaches, as well as underwater marine reserves, rhododendron groves and a 19th-century Russian fur-trading fort. At Sea Ranch, don’t let exclusive-looking vacation homes prevent you from following public-access trailhead signs and staircases down to empty beaches and across ocean bluffs. Further north, guarding an unbelievably windy point since 1908, Point Arena Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in California where you can actually climb to the top. Check in at the museum, then ascend the 115ft tower to inspect the Fresnel lens, and panoramas of the sea and the jagged San Andreas Fault below.
12. Mendocino & Fort Bragg
Looking more like Cape Cod than California, the quaint maritime town of Mendocino has white picket fences surrounding New England–style cottages with blooming gardens and redwood-built water towers. Its dramatic headlands jutting into the Pacific, this yesteryear timber town and shipping port was "discovered" by artists and bohemians in the 1950s and has served as a scenic backdrop in over 50 movies. Once you’ve browsed the cute shops and art galleries selling everything from driftwood carvings to homemade fruit jams – the town is nicknamed "Spendocino" – escape north to workaday Fort Bragg, with its simple fishing harbor and brewpub, stopping first for a short hike on the ecological staircase and pygmy forest trail at oceanfront Jug Handle State Natural Reserve.
Hwy 101 trundles alongside Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a major stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. Next comes the sleepy railroad town of Eureka. As you wander downtown, check out the ornate Carson Mansion, built in the 1880s by a timber baron and adorned with dizzying Victorian turrets, towers, gables and gingerbread details. Blue Ox Millworks & Historic Park still creates Victorian detailing by hand using traditional carpentry and 19th-century equipment. Back by Eureka’s harborfront, climb aboard the blue-and-white 1910 Madaket, docked at the foot of C St. Sunset cocktail cruises serve from California’s smallest licensed bar.
14. Redwood National & State Parks
At last, you’ll reach Redwood National Park. Get oriented to the tallest trees on earth at the coastal Thomas H Kuchel Visitor Center, just south of the tiny town of Orick. Then commune with the coastal giants on their own mossy turf inside Lady Bird Johnson Grove or the majestic Tall Trees Grove (free drive-and-hike permit required). For more untouched redwood forests, wind along the 10-mile Newton B Drury Scenic Parkway in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, passing grassy meadows where Roosevelt elk roam, then follow Hwy 101 all the way north to Crescent City, the last pit stop before the Oregon border.
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